The Road to Atlanta: Sharp Shooting

SharpshooterIn just a little over a month’s time, the face of the war changed in both Virginia and Georgia. The war assumed much more brutal nature—unrelenting and cruel. Trench warfare seemed to now be the norm; Union rifled artillery dominated the field; and the ever-present threat of death seemed to hang over everyone’s heads, from lieutenant generals to privates.

One of the new threats was the increase among Confederate forces of the Whitworth Sharpshooters. Whitworth Rifles were an engineering marvel, hexagonal bore with an accurate range of over one thousand yards when sporting the 14-inch Davidson scope along the side of its barrel. In the hands of a trained marksman, these were a force to be reckoned with.

During the winter of 1863-64, there were significant shipments of these weapons into the Army of Tennessee along with a similar rifle known as the Kerr. In Cleburne’s Division alone, nearly 30 sharpshooters took to the field as the Atlanta Campaign began—with smaller groups in the other divisions and brigades of the army—and their presence was felt by officers and enlisted men who learned that to exposure for an instant above the head log of an entrenchment could mean instant death, even with the enemy over a mile away.

By the time Sherman’s hosts approached the looming Kennesaw Mountain, men of all ranks took every precaution they could on the skirmish line, taking advantage of anything that could offer cover as they immediately began to dig in. However, all the precautions in the world could not always prevent death, and this became keenly felt among the talented junior officers of the army.

SimonsonOn June 16, 1864, Captain Peter Simonson of the 5th Indiana Battery and Chief of Artillery for the 1st Division, IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, was scouting a new position for his old battery along the Pine Mountain line. Simonson, who only two days before had ordered the shot that killed Leonidas Polk, and who had stopped Hood’s flank attack at Resaca, rolled a log along the ground as he crawled on his belly with some infantry skirmishers along a rise several hundred yards in front of the Confederate line. All of the sudden, he stopped and lay with his face to the ground as a crimson patch began to expand from his head. Simonson had ventured a brief peek above his log at the Confederate line and was instantly shot through the forehead, depriving the army of one of its most talented artillerists.

“This was an irreparable loss,” Gen. David Stanley, noted. “He never missed an opportunity, and allowed no difficulty to deter him from putting his batteries in every position that could prove annoying or destructive to the enemy.”

Seeing his death struck his men hard. “Strong men were shaken with deep emotion,” one soldier said. “Gen. Stanley with others of the Division were soon ‘in the presence of the dead,’ but none were more deeply affected than the boys of the Battery…. In the death of Captain Simonson the Battery lost a true and tried friend, and though the boys had great confidence in the officers in immediate command, there was none that could fill the place vacated by the death of their Captain.”

Many of the talented officers would fall in the coming days and weeks as both armies continued to bleed a steady trickle of lives in what one soldier later called, “The Hundred Days Battle.”

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